Monday, 14 December 2009

Wee prayer for Schools Carol service - 13th December 2009

Dear Father God, God of Advent and Christmas, God of Shepherds and Angels, God of Babies and Kings

Thank you for tonight, for this chance to gather together, to share together, to worship together.
Thank you for this special time of year, when we remember how you sent your son to become a tiny baby.
Thank you, too for the many blessings we have – times to celebrate, food to eat and presents to enjoy.
And thank you for the gifts we can share with each other – gifts of music and song, of love and friendship, of faith and hope.
We're sorry for times when we don't share, don't love, or don't have hope; sorry for times when we focus too much on what we have and not who gives to us, on spending time and money on ourselves instead of serving you.
Help us, we pray, to keep focused on you, to worship and serve you by helping and caring for others, and by keeping and passing on your (Christmas) love, your joy and your peace this Advent.

For all this we pray in Jesus' name,

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sermon - 29th November (Advent 1)

OK so I'm a bad man, haven't posted for a month, but here's my sermon from Sunday past.
It's actually another re-jig but I liked it so much I thought it would serve again.
Comments welcome!

This week the Christmas TV schedules were in some of the papers – although as one comedian observed, there are a lot of repeats: ‘To be confirmed’ is on several times a day! But this is the time that we get previews of the major Christmas specials – and I notice that the costume drama ‘Cranford’ is one of those.

Perhaps you watched Cranford a couple of years ago – maybe just one or two episodes, or the whole lot – or none at all. But I imagine if you watched any BBC at all, you saw several ‘trails’, adverts, promoting it, between other programmes.

Perhaps you got tired of being told that Cranford was ‘The one to watch’…

This year, the trail I noticed most often was probably the trail for David Attenborough’s programme. ‘Life… as you’ve never seen it before’

But whether you get fed up of trails, or are just itching for the programme time to arrive, they are doing their job –informing you of what’s coming up this week, something that the BBC at least considers important that you should see: “Here’s something new, something of quality, an interesting story, or actors in it you’ll recognise” – they’re working at getting the message across.

Or do you go to the cinema? Having young children, I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema, though my wife and I used to go quite a bit.
Before the main feature, you get a series of trailers, perhaps a couple of minutes each, and at the end of each one, you get maybe just the name or even just the logo of the film. The film company, the film distributor, have put a lot of money and effort into this film, and they think it’s worth you spending your money on to come and see it, so they spend their money on this trailer, which might run for months before the release date, to keep it ‘on the agenda’ in the mind of the ‘cinema-going public’.

Now maybe you don’t watch TV or go to the cinema, but you’ll perhaps have been to a wedding where someone has announced at the reception ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding for the Bride and Groom’.

In each of these cases, you’re getting a foretaste of what is to come. It’s not a surprise to you that the happy couple then enter the room. You know in advance what the latest movie or TV programme is going to be and when it’s going to be on.

In our reading from Luke’s gospel, John is giving a trailer, an advert, for the coming Messiah. He is saying “Coming soon… someone mightier than I am”. And he has gone about it in an unusual way – going out to the desert or wilderness, dressing in odd clothes and eating things which may have been acceptable under Jewish law, but probably didn’t meet even that culture’s ideas of a balanced diet. In any case, it’s having an effect – he’s got (at least some) people’s attention, they are coming to hear the message that he’s trying to get across.

But it’s not just a matter of hearing the message – what do you do with it when you’ve heard it? What’s your response? If it’s the bride and groom coming in, you stand up. If it’s the TV or cinema – well, you make a decision about watching it, or avoiding it like the plague. You take a note of the time, and maybe you need to find out the cost. Some people might have to get a babysitter, or set the video/DVD recorder/Sky+ – anyway, if it’s a priority for you to see it, then you do what you have to do to see it. But apart from that, what else changes? Not much, life goes on as normal.

There’s the difference with John the Baptist. His ‘trailer’ is not just one you can ignore, or make a few arrangements for, then carry on as normal. It’s not just a case of standing up for a few minutes. He calls for change. Major, fundamental change.

The call to “Repent” is a word that probably now we just associate with old-time preachers, but the imagery conjured up by it at the time might best be represented by the phrase ‘Do a U-turn!’ In other words, you’re going the wrong way – stop, and go the other way.

John’s theme was ‘you’ve got to be ready for the One who is coming’, and that means living lives that are ethical, moral, lives that are in right relationship to God. ‘Sin’ is another word that isn’t used much outside the church, but we’re all familiar with the idea of failing to meet a certain standard – Quality Assurance, tests and exams, hearing someone say “I expected better of you” – or perhaps even feeling “I expected better of myself”. John is saying, in effect – your lives aren’t what they might be, and you need to recognise this – and here’s a public sign – a washing or baptism. He had taken a ritual which had been used by the Jewish faith and given it new meaning.

His message is particularly strong to the religious leaders – of both ‘parties’ of the time. You’ve got to show that you have changed – your lives have to produce ‘fruit’, evidence of your new thought and behaviour patterns, and he warns against complacency, or depending on history and heritage to save them from the consequences of their negative behaviour.

And what should they be doing? Luke ties John’s preaching up with a part of the prophecy of Isaiah, who also lists some qualities of the coming Messiah: wisdom, loyalty to the Lord, discernment, fairness to the poor and downtrodden, punishment to the wicked, justice, guidance and majesty. It wouldn’t seem too great a leap to suggest that those who have to produce ‘fruit’ should emulate these qualities – both internal and external, personal and relational – attitude towards God and attitude towards others.

To go back to our film trailers for a moment, one of the issues that people often have with trailers is the tendency to reveal if not the whole plot then certainly to show all the ‘action’ scenes in the trailer – and if the plot is thin or shaky to begin with then there seems little point in seeing the whole film. Some ‘James Bond’ movies have been accused of this.

But although there should be ‘no surprises’ about the fact of the movie being released, or the date of its release, it is probably good practice to not reveal the whole story in advance – impossible to do, with only a few minutes to give an impression.

This again has parallels in Scripture. There should be ‘no surprises’ for Judah, who have had not only John, but a whole series of prophets, including Isaiah, to tell them what God is saying, what God wants them to do, and that there is a Messiah to come in the future. However, the prophets are not the Messiah, and John makes it clear that he is not the Messiah. As prophets, they cannot see or tell the full story. John’s baptism is not the full baptism, the coming one will baptise in the Holy Spirit and fire – a prophecy that is fulfilled later, at Pentecost. The coming one is to ‘winnow’ to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is possible that this refers to (among other things) the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus takes on and extends the idea of ‘failing to measure up’ by looking at attitudes that lie behind deeds – that it’s the hatred of people that is the root problem, whether or not it inspires violence or murder. It’s the lustful thoughts that are wrong, not just the acts that they can inspire.
John’s baptism of repentance, of turning around people’s lives, is to prepare people for this teaching but it is not the full teaching, yet.

And what is our response to this trailer, this advance notice? We are looking back from the perspective of history, we are not hearing John at first hand. He can’t be preaching to us? No… and yes. In our Advent preparations, in a sense we re-enact and re-tell the Nativity story, we enter into it, and we too must examine ourselves to see if our lives are ready for the entry of God into the world. Further, Advent points us to the return of Christ, whatever form that will take – and in that sense we are in the same position as those who heard John’s message – “no surprises”, we know that this event will happen, but yes, some surprises – we don’t know the day or the hour, and so we must be in a state of readiness. If there are behaviours, attitudes, actions or lack of actions that do not line up in our relationship with God, or our relationship with people in the world, we need to review, revise and perhaps repent – turn ourselves around and go a different way, the way of the Psalmist, who put their trust in God, who asked for guidance, mercy, forgiveness, and help to follow God’s law.

The Reformers of our Church took as their motto ‘Reformed, yet always reforming’ – and this applies as much to individuals as to the church corporate. So let’s take some time to reflect and think about the trailers that we see and hear – which ones are we ignoring, which ones are we allowing to prompt us to make preparations, to think about our ‘fruit’, our behaviour towards others?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Sermon - 25th October (Bible Sunday)

It was my supervisor's idea... but I agreed. Miraculously we got about 10 others who signed up too!

You have perhaps heard about the minister, who announced to his congregation one Sunday: “Next week my sermon will address the sin of lying. To prepare yourselves for it, please read the seventeenth chapter of Mark’s gospel.”
The following Sunday arrived, and he asked “Do you remember last week I asked you to read Mark 17 – how many of you read it?”
Most of the congregation raised their hands.
“Good,” he replied. “There are only 16 chapters in Mark. Now for the sermon on the sin of lying…”

Did you know that? Perhaps some of you, as I was telling that story, were thinking, ‘Hang on, is there a seventeenth chapter?’ while others perhaps wouldn’t have known. And you might say ‘well, that’s just Bible trivia’ – knowing the number of chapters in a given book. You might know the number of books in the Bible (66) – but what about the number of chapters in the whole Bible? 1189. The number of verses? 31102 (according to one count).
Although in other translations, languages and traditions, these figures would be somewhat different, depending on the inclusion or exclusion of certain books, chapters and verses – and the Jewish Bible does not count 39 books (as in our Old Testament), but just 24.

In our reading from Isaiah, we heard a broad invitation, issued by God, through the prophet: Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters, come without money and buy … without cost.

Those who would have heard this message were Jews in Babylon - technically exiles from their homeland, but were probably one or two generations removed from those who had been taken from Judah. They would have been settled, possibly happy – many would have been prosperous.

And they might have lost confidence in God, thinking that because they had been taken to Babylon, that meant God had been unable to help them – was unable to help them now.

I don’t know if this rings any bells with anyone? True, most of us may still be living in the country, even the area or town where we were born and brought up, but the world has changed around us. Effectively we are exiles from our history – as we grew up perhaps we had God, Sunday School, the church as constants, part of life we could depend on, something that was universal. And now? We see and hear (or we avoid hearing) news of declining membership, linking and uniting churches, redundant buildings. We hear the ‘new atheists’, loudly challenging and attacking religion, and perhaps we find it harder to hear the people who are arguing back.

Maybe we feel settled, comfortable, in this new world, where we have enough confidence to continue in our own faith, but not enough to share it with others, to put forward Christianity in conversations with our friends. It’s something we do, not something we talk about.

Our people in Babylon then hear this message:
– part of a greater message to them: Come, come and drink, come and be part of what your families were once part of – go out with joy and be led forth with peace – you can rely on God’s word, it will do what God intends!

And suddenly, earlier parts of Isaiah’s prophecy start coming true! God’s people would be freed from their captivity, they would get to leave Babylon, and God’s instrument for doing this was to be Cyrus the Persian leader.

God’s word starts to look a lot more dependable, something they could rely on. And in fact, if they had looked further back, even their captivity was foretold – God promised – if you obey the law, I’ll bless you, but if you don’t listen, there will be progressively worse consequences, ending in exile!

From our perspective there are even more reasons to depend on God’s word – notably prophecies of the Messiah which we see fulfilled in the life, ministry and passion of Jesus Christ.

However, it’s not just the Bible’s ability to tell the future that should convince us of its dependability, it is also its accurate portrayal of humanity, the human condition – that despite being made in the image of God, we ultimately stumble, fall and fail – whether you call that sin, or wrongdoing, or selfishness. Consider any local newspaper ‘police’ column, or perhaps any tv news bulletin – and need I mention the expenses scandal?

And generations of Christians have found that not only is the Bible dependable, it is the route to a relationship with God through Jesus, and to a process of change and transformation in their lives. From the Apostle Paul to CS Lewis, through to many current writers, thinkers - and church members today.

If the Bible’s reliability and dependability is recognised, is that as far as we go? What did the Jews in Babylon do? They took the word seriously, and returned to Judah.

And what do we do? The Bible is often quoted as being the bestseller of all time, but the least read book of all time.
I suggest – we suggest – that we can try and change that.
[My supervisor] and I are going to register for a scheme to read the Bible through in one year. Now as you may well know or realise, simply starting at Genesis and working on from there soon becomes self-defeating, but there are many reading plans which offer an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a Psalm and perhaps some of Proverbs. In the scheme we are going to register with, a copy of the Bible printed in the dated daily portions, under the banner of ‘Every Day with Jesus’ – a daily devotional written by Selwyn Hughes.

How long would that take, do I hear you ask?
Well, a former lecturer of mine at college used to start the Old Testament course with a class entitled ‘Through the Old Testament in 90 minutes!’ And he succeeded – although we didn’t read it all word-for word! But if you remember, the total number of chapters in the Bible is 1189 – so dividing by 365 days gives 3 and a quarter chapters to be read per day, on average.
Now you might consider that quite a lot – but remember, public readings of the Bible are often read at a slower pace than personal reading, and that can be good technique in a big church, to allow everyone to follow. But on your own, you might read a chapter in five minutes or less. You might want to take more time to think about it, but you could easily fit in a chapter in a spare few minutes – just after a meal, or in a break, or if you use public transport.

Ah but you might say, what if I don’t understand one part. The same Old Testament lecturer would say ‘don’t worry, put that issue ‘on the mantelpiece’ so to speak – not to ignore it, but to hold it for a while – it’s very likely that something you don’t understand now will become clearer later. If we continually stop and try to get it all perfected in our heads, we will not get very far.

Anyone who has tried any sort of daily discipline of Bible reading, or prayer, might just say ‘I’m bound to miss a day’ or end up giving up. However, this is not about ‘another thing to buy’ or having ‘another thing to fall down doing – whether in January 14th, or Feb, May, Oct, whenever. But an encouragement to do what many want to do – to know the Bible better – why? : to challenge the preacher?! – to understand the context – to do more than just take part in selective quoting of individual verses? (which almost everyone indulges in from time to time)

And imagine how you might feel, how you might be changed, by a daily 5 or 10 or 15 minutes of reading the whole Bible? Is it like Munro-bagging – do you do it, just to say ‘I’ve climbed them all?’ Or are there other benefits – the fitness and exercise developed by regular climbs; the going to places you don’t often go or haven’t been before; the unexpected sights and vistas that you discover along the way?

So here is our question, our challenge to you – will you join us? You can express interest today; or you can think about it – maybe try reading a chapter or three one day this week and see how long it takes. Or try working your way through one of the shorter books – Mark’s gospel for example! – before next Sunday. Then once we have an idea of interest, we can order the Bibles in November, get them in December, and start in January. The benefit of doing this as a community, should be clear – we can encourage and motivate each other, and talk about parts we found challenging. Then we may rediscover the truth of Paul’s words to Timothy:
(2 Tim 3:16) All Scripture is God-breathed, and useful for rebuking, teaching, training in righteousness
and be taken back by God to our ‘homeland’, our heritage as a country known to be steeped in the Good Book.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Prayers - 11th October

More recycling (from two different services - both Feb 08, placement 4) and both adapted of course!

Let us unite our hearts in prayer; Let us pray,

Lord God, we bring ourselves from a variety of situations, to this place and at this time, to pause, to draw close to you again, and to acknowledge that
You are God.

We may have a strong belief, or a new and slowly growing faith; we may have let things slip into mere habit, or be the most enthusiastic and committed member; but whoever we are, we say: you are the Almighty God, the Maker of our universe and our world, the One who wants to be in relationship with us, the One who would do anything for us, the One who did the utmost for us.

We cannot understand you or know exactly what you are like, except what you have shown us in the Bible, through the generations of the community of faith, and especially through your Son, Jesus Christ.

Thank you that your faithfulness is recorded from earliest times to now, from year to year, from century to century, from millennium to millenium. Help us to record and remember your own work in our lives, so that we can look back with surety and say ‘yes, God was there’, and look forward in hope, saying ‘yes, God will be there’.

We recognise that we continue to make mistakes, despite our best intentions, and we want to say sorry. Sorry for the times when we spoke but should have stayed silent, and the times when we stayed silent and should have spoken.
Sorry for the words and actions that didn’t match up. Sorry for the hurt caused to others – deliberate or accidental.
Sorry for the things left undone that would bring our family and friends closer to you, and that would bring your kingdom closer, here on earth.

Father God, we thank you that when we recognise our faults and failings, you forgive us and give us a clean slate to start again.
Help us to look back in order to look forward, to see your faithfulness and trust you for the future, and to spend more time listening for your voice and sharing our thoughts, hopes, dreams and lives with you.

We pray all these things in and through the name of Jesus, who taught us when we pray to say

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,
For ever, Amen.

Prayer of Thanks and Intercession

Glorious and Almighty God,
We give you thanks for your written word, for all that we read in Scripture. For the ways in which your faithfulness to people is demonstrated. For the inspiration we can receive from reading from it daily or as we have opportunity. For the lessons we can learn. Please help us to take hold of it, trusting in your faithfulness, being lifted up by a daily thought or word, learning from it when we study it or preach it. Thank you, too, for your gifts to us - the water that we drink and the food we eat, and the living water of your love, grace, and mercy.
We bring you now our prayers for the church, for the world, and for others.
We pray for our congregation, parish, and area, that you will work through us and those in our neighbouring churches, so that our lives reflect our faith, and are attractive to our families, friends and colleagues. Help them to overcome images of Christianity that are wrong or misleading – whether gained from long distant experiences, or stereotyped portrayals in the media. Help our church locally and nationally to combine the best of tradition with the best new ideas, so that we remain faithful to the message yet communicate it in fresh ways, through new music and different forms of worship.

We pray for our world, remembering areas of war, tension, deprivation and disaster, whether at the top of the headlines or not: like Iraq and its many difficulties, including relationships with Turkey; like Zimbabwe and those who have either fled the country or continue to struggle in a very difficult economic situation. We ask for wisdom, help and encouragement for national leaders, for international organisations, and for mission and relief agencies – particularly the Disasters Emergency Committee and others working in Indonesia, the South Pacific and other disaster areas – and we ask for help ourselves to act, whether in changing our shopping habits, or writing to politicians and ambassadors. We pray, too for our politicians and other civic leaders, that with all that has happened over recent months, they will be enabled to rebuild public trust, and to work for the good of those on the edges of society.

We pray for those known to us – relatives, neighbours and friends, that are having a particularly hard week or month, or year. Be with those who mourn, those who are ill, in hospital, or housebound. Comfort those who are having a difficult time in a relationship. And give us wisdom, and eyes and ears to see and hear where we can help – to speak or to listen, to hug or to send a note.

We pray, Lord, that each person who is part of this congregation will hear your word, and grow in their relationship with You, becoming people whose words and actions are more like you would have them be.

We pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Saviour. Amen

Children's Address - Faithfulness

Although this is for today, 11th, it's not specifically tied to the (lectionary or other) readings for the day. Its original context was in a service whose readings were Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 and John 3: 1-17 (from Feb 08, Placement 4) but I haven't checked to see if it tied in with them either!

[Teaching point – God’s faithfulness to all, not just ‘then’ or just ‘now’ but all through time.]

Who has a family member here? A brother, sister, aunty, uncle, cousin, mum, dad, gran, grampa?

They’ve given you a lot – maybe birthday presents, Christmas presents, holiday presents? (Peter’s birthday – granny brought presents…)
And they do lots of other things for you too – especially mum & dad, gran & grampa – they make sure you’re not hungry, clothes, and that you’re ready for school. And they even bring you here!

What about your gran’s mum and dad, or your gran’s gran and grampa? Do you think they did the same thing before – they’ve looked after your gran, made sure she wasn’t hungry and went to school?

[Maybe show pictures of some of my family?]

Then talk about Abraham. Abraham is someone that lots of people in the world look back to. In a way, he’s where God started his ‘rescue plan’ for humans – God got Abraham to make a new start by moving to a new place – and Abraham did. Abraham started trusting God and did what God said. Now, that by itself might not have been much, but what happens next? Abraham passes it on to Isaac, his son. Not only does he make sure that his son is fed, clothed and taught lots of important things, but he tells him about God.
Isaac tells his son.
Each family passes it on down the line to their children.
Or to their nieces and nephews.
Or to their cousins or to their friends.
Right down to Jesus himself
And after Jesus, Jesus’ friends passed on the news about him to their children and their friends, down through the years, until it got to me and to you!

The great news is that God wants to know you, wants to speak to you and wants you to speak to him and to do the things he asks. And he wants you to pass it on – even now, to your friends, your cousins, and when you grow up, to your children too.

So let’s pray together – and if you like, you repeat each line after me.

Dear God
Thank you for family,
For the people who look after us and help us.
Thank you for Abraham
And for your rescue plan
Thank you for sending Jesus
and for speaking to us and listening to us.
Please help us
to live the way you want us to
and to tell others about you.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Prayers - 4th October (Feast of St Francis)

Prayers from (to be consistent) what shall be known as 'Placement 7'! One slightly adapted from an adaptation of a Nick Fawcett, the other adapted from one I used in 'Placement 4'. Yes, I believe in recycling... Incidentally I didn't use the refrain in the first prayer as a congregational response but it is obviously suited to that!

Prayer of Adoration, Confession and Lord’s Prayer:

Let us bring our prayers of Adoration and Confession; let us pray:

God of all, we come to proclaim your greatness,
to sing of your might,
to declare your majesty,
and to rejoice in all that you have done
You are a God of love and mercy,
and we praise you.

We come to hear again of your great acts across history,
your wonderful deeds amongst your people,
all you have accomplished in Christ.
You are a God of love and mercy,
and we praise you.

We come to give you glory for creation,
for the animals that surround us,
the places they live
and the ways in which they bless us
You are a God of love and mercy,
and we praise you.

We come to lift up our hearts
to lift up our voices,
and to celebrate again the Gospel.
You are a God of love and mercy,
and we praise you.

But as we bring our praise so also we bring our confession.
Confession that too often our praise has been hollow,
our worship has been restricted to Sundays
and to the place we call church.

That when the chance has come to speak for you
we have kept silent,
and when the opportunity has arisen to serve you
we have held back.

That when we have known what we should do
we have failed to do it,
and when we have known what not to do
we have gone ahead and done it.

That we have forgotten you are always ready
to forgive and renew us,
and consequently have burdened ourselves
with feelings of guilt and despair.

You are a God of love and mercy,
and we praise you.

Merciful God, forgive us now for failing to practice what we preach,
for denying what we proclaim by the way we live,
for letting you down in so many ways
through our weak and feeble discipleship.
You are a God of love and mercy,
and we praise you.

Help us live in such a way
that our words and actions may be one,
and our faith seen to be real.
And so, may all we say,
all we do, and all we are,
witness to you and the wonder of your love
shown through Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught us to pray, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,
For ever, Amen.

[Readings: Psalm 121; Matthew 11: 25-30]

Prayer of Thanks and Intercession

Glorious and Almighty God,
We give you thanks for your many blessings to us, for our lives, our families and friends, our surroundings – and we ask that, following the Psalmist, our appreciation of the world would remind us that our help comes from you, the Creator.

We bring you now our prayers for others, and for the world. We ask for strength for those in Samoa, American Samoa and Sumatra, in the aftermath of disasters, as they try to rescue, clear up and rebuild. We pray for comfort for those who have lost family, or home, or livelihood.
We remember places around the world at war, or where war has only recently ended; where people are fighting, or being treated badly, or don’t have home or food or healthcare, and we ask for help for peacekeeping forces, and agencies : Christian Aid, TearFund, Red Cross and others as they try to improve life for many people.

We pray for Scotland and for this parish, that your people, your church, including ourselves, will look for chances to bring love instead of hate, faith instead of doubt, hope instead of despair, light instead of darkness and joy instead of sadness.

In particular we pause to remember those known to us, who are ill or infirm, or injured, {....} and we pray for healing for them and encouragement for their families.

We pray for those who have lost loved ones – recently and not so recently {....} – and ask that you will bring comfort to them through your Holy Spirit, and through us.

We pray using words of St Francis: May the power of your love, Lord Christ, fiery and sweet as honey, so absorb our hearts as to withdraw them from all that is under heaven. Grant that we may be ready to die for love of your love, as you died for love of our love.

Loving God, we offer all our prayers, spoken and silent in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

What are you going to be? (Sermon)

Just for a laugh, here's my first ever sermon... from a congregation that I'll call rather creatively, 'Placement 1'

Readings: Ecclesiastes 4: 1-16; Luke 10: 25-37

What are you going to be when you grow up?

You may be worrying that I have prepared a children's address instead of a sermon! But that is a question that we hear many times through life. As young children, aunties and uncles, parents and grandparents may have asked us this. At school, teachers ask pupils this question - or now it may be 'careers and vocational guidance staff'. As we become aunties and uncles, parents and grandparents, we start asking the next generation of young people - 'what are YOU going to be when you grow up?'

Perhaps we have even asked ourselves this - what AM I going to be when I grow up? My stock answer as a young boy was 'part-time racing driver, and part-time baker'. I suppose being a racing driver was one of those jobs that seem exciting. The bakery part was 'so I can set up a shop in Aberdeen, near my Granny's house, and give her free rolls'! As I grew up, to my parents' relief, racing cars became less attractive, and they're probably glad, in a way, that I didn't achieve my later ambition of being an astronaut, either. I do bake occasionally, but the only thing I tend to bake is banana loaf!

What are you going to be... the world seems to continually ask that question, to give you a label, to put you in a pigeonhole (a doocot?). I, for one, am still trying to answer the question 'What am I going to be when I grow up' - and I know others older than me who haven't found the answer yet either.

But, I have a few lines of enquiry... As many of you know, Enquiry is the fancy name for my placement here for a few months. Like many others, I've expressed an interest in working in and for the church - perhaps as a parish ministers, or serving in some other way. So the Church have assigned me to work with [the minister] and all of you at [this church] : taking part in Sunday worship, having the privilege of chatting with and visiting some of you, and reading books. Most importantly, I have to keep a reflective journal - not an easy task! The journal is not just a record of events, but also to do with the meaning of what I've done and experienced. I might write about how I felt before, during and after this sermon. For example, when I stood up in the pulpit, my main thought was 'What am I doing here?'! I might also write about what I think God is saing to me about enquiry and the ordained ministry.
[The minister] best described what I am doing when I was first introduced to you: "[Nodrog] is asking some big questions of God, like 'What shall I do with the rest of my life' "

And it was while I was discussing with [the minister] the reading from Ecclesiastes 4, that I had - or received - a sudden insight:
We were discussing the question, What is the Philosopher really saying in this passage, in this book? I shouted out - 'He's doing an Enquirer's course - this is his reflective Journal'. Of course, the Enquiry process is so new that many in the church haven't heard of it, but the process of questioning God, or asking yourself, 'What is the meaning of life? What am I doing here?' is not new at all, and I believe that the book of Ecclesiastes records some of the Philosopher's journey through these big questions.

[The minister] looked last week at how he started on a fairly depressing note - 'life is useless, there is nothing new under the sun, it is all chasing after the wind'. But by chapter 4, the question 'what do we have to show for all our toil?' has been replaced - for a while, at least - by further questions, and some tentative answers. Just as my reflective journal allows me to ask further questions and perhaps find some possible answers.

One area of his questioning seems to be 'Why do you allow injustice, God? Why are the oppressed weeping, why does no one help them?'. These are questions that many people today are asking - even using them as a reason to doubt God exists. The fact that there are so many oppressed by poverty, by sickness, [PAUSE] EVEN by other people, can make the problems seem overwhelming. What can any of us do in the face of large-scale suffering?
The Philosopher writes - 'I looked at... the oppressed... and no one would help them because their oppressors had power on their side.' As [the minister] reminded us in the children's address, we can feel outclassed by issues at the international level, but we need to remember that we can help on a one-to-one basis. Getting close to someone who is hurting can relieve the oppression that they are under.

Further on in the chapter, the Philosopher has continued to work through these questions adn come to that point. In verse 9, he states: 'two are better off than one, because together they can work more effectively'.
Now, for some, [PAUSE] but not for all, [PAUSE], this partenrship may mean marriage. But not all the time - as verse 12 states 'two men can resist an attack that would defeat one man alone'. Some people may be called to be single, and gain strength from business partnerships, or friendships. Verse 10 talks of, perhaps, two friends out walking: "If one fo them falls down, the other can help him up. But if someone is alone and falls, it's just too bad, because there is no one to help him." What is very clear from these verses is that we were not created to be individuals - it's as if the Philosopher is reflecting on the passage from Genesis 2, where God has made Adam, and notes that 'it is not good for him to be alone'.
In fact, the writer goes further than the benefits of just two in relationship together - 'a rope made of three cords is hard to break'.
What does he mean by that?
I believe that he is bringing God into the relationship equation. In general, it seems that the writer realises God has a part to play in life, but he can't understand exactly what it is. However, in this picture of the three-corded rope, he acknowledges that bringing God into your friendships, business partnerships, dealings with your next-door neighbour, will bring much more strength and richness to that interaction.

What does that mean for us now? We have to look no further than our New Testament reading. Jesus makes it quite clear in the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan that just one ordinary person can break a barrier of oppression - a gap between two peoples who looked down on each other.

It only takes one person to do something for another individual, and in doing so, start building a relationship that can transform a community. If "mighty oaks from little acorns grow", where can you plant an acorn - today, this week? Who do you know who is oppressed, or outcast? Are there barriers that you can help break down between age groups, between nationalities, between housing estates...?

You may have heard the following story before. Why not close your eyes, if you like, and try and imagine you are in the story, observing the situation.

A man was on holiday in a seaside town, and one morning, he went for a walk along the beach. As he walked, hea noticed a number of stranded starfish all over the beach. He approached a young boy, who was picking up the starfish one by one and, very gently, throwing them back into the sea.
'Why are you doing that?' the man asked.
The boy replied, 'Because the tide is out and the sun is coming up - if I don't do it, they'll die.'
'Just throwing a few back won't make any difference,' exclaimed the man. 'This beach stretches for miles - there must be thousands and thousands of starfish.'
The boy paused with another starfish in his hands, and looked at the man. 'It makes a difference to this one,' he said, and continued his task.

The following morning there were two people on the beach, a man and a boy, throwing starfish back into the sea.

Jesus said 'You go, then, and do the same'
Make a difference
Break a barrier
Build a relationship


Even as I review this, I know that I wouldn't write the same words today (it was 6.5 years ago!) but I'll avoid commenting on specifics in case anyone else wants to first!
However I did recently discover the source of the closing story: 'The Star Thrower' by Loren Eisley or Eiseley (anthropologist, 1907-77).

Welcome and Purpose

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more...

Yes, I've been and gone and started a new blog. One that I may actually contribute to more regularly than once in a blue baboon. And this is it: Nodrog's Worship Stuff. Catchy title, as I'm sure you'll agree? No? Oh well, suit yourself. At least it does what it says on the tin - or should do. Worship stuff is anything I have created, adapted or pinched for use in (Christian!) worship services. Hopefully I'll be able to add things I've used in the past and things I'm using in my new job, and you'll be able to tell me how I could make it better... Of course, I've always been better at theory rather than practice!

Feel free to post comments on how to improve the blog as well as the worship content, too!

And thanks for joining me and reading this far!